Charlie: The Feral Dog Who Came in From the Wild

A new book about a truly feral dog shows the importance of shared trust and love

Posted Sep 03, 2015

I've been impatiently waiting for the publication of a book for which I wrote the foreword called Charlie: The Dog Who Came in From the Wild by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma. It has now been published and I asked Lisa some questions about Charlie and the book. I can't think of a better way to review this outstanding and most important book than to read what she wrote about her new friend and "wise soul," a Romanian feral dog named Charlie, and the lessons they both learned from this challenging but most rewarding friendship. You can also read an interview with the author here

Reproduced with permission of the author
Source: Reproduced with permission of the author

1) Why did you decide to adopt Charlie?

When Charlie arrived he was in such a traumatized state that my heart went out to him. The plan had been to foster him while I prepared him for life in a home, and then to carry on fostering other dogs once Charlie had an adoptive family. However, it was clear from the start that Charlie had very special needs and would need a very experienced home; somewhere he could learn to adjust and feel safe in what was, for him, an alien environment. I worried about how he would cope with yet more change, and also how an adoptive family would cope with a dog who was extraordinarily fearful. Within days I knew he wouldn’t be leaving us, and I adopted him two weeks after his arrival. It was the right decision for both of us, and I’m very glad I made it.

2) What lessons did you learn?

I learned a vast amount through my relationship with Charlie, and described some of these lessons in the book. I’ve been fortunate to have many wise teachers, but Charlie was truly my greatest teacher.

The chapter headings describe the qualities that both Charlie and I had to tap into in order to negotiate the labyrinth of Charlie’s frequent progressions and regressions. These were lessons that apply to all of us, and the most important one was trust, the foundation for all relationships. Charlie reminded me many times that trust must be earned and constantly upheld, that it can be lost in just a moment of thoughtlessness and must be constantly built on. The trust that developed between Charlie and I enriched both of our lives immeasurably, and as this grew I learned that even a “wild soul” such as Charlie was capable of forming an unbreakable bond with a member of another species. 

Patience was another quality. Relationships need time to develop, they can’t be rushed (despite our have-it-all-now culture!), and allowing the gradual progression as trust and love grow enables an extraordinary deep bond to be formed. It’s worth the wait. 

Taking responsibility for meeting Charlie’s needs, for helping him to integrate into our family unit and to safely learn to socialize with those outside our home, was vital. That responsibility had to extend to everyone Charlie came in contact with, as well. Initially this involved helping Charlie to feel safe and protecting him from unwanted attention, but when he went through a very aggressive phase when his confidence grew, seven months after his arrival, it was my responsibility to ensure that others were safe around him, and to call on every resource possible to help me guide Charlie through to calmer emotional waters. I was grateful to Team Charlie, a group of friends who are experts in various fields of veterinary medicine and holistic therapies. Charlie also appeared to consider himself responsible for me, too, as our bond strengthened. He very likely saved my life one night, as I described in Chapter 8, “Facing Fears.” 

I could talk for a long time about what Charlie taught me. How to live life with passion and courage, how to face our fears instead of shrinking from them, about living in the moment, about the sheer joy of play, and about the sheer beauty of unconditional love. These were just some of his many lessons.

3) What did Charlie learn?

Charlie learned to adapt to living in a situation and environment that his former life hadn’t equipped him to cope with. This must have been incredibly hard for him and it took a long time for him to adjust, even though I took great care at all times to prevent him from feeling overwhelmed. His strength of character was awe-inspiring. What Charlie experienced was similar to that of any wild creature who was suddenly thrust into an environment where he was captive and had very few choices. This must have been utterly traumatic for a free-ranging dog like himself, unsocialized with humans, who had been perfectly adapted to living according to his instincts but had no coping mechanism for the sights, sounds and smells that bombarded his senses, let alone confinement and the constant presence of humans. My respect for him was boundless.

He learned to bond with and trust me and other humans, to socialize with dogs from outside his social group, to cope with the stresses of the domestic environment, to accept the restraints of a harness and leash for walks in the field and woods near our home, to enjoy the pleasure of regular meals that didn’t necessitate an arduous and potentially dangerous hunting trip, and to enjoy the comfort of a dog (and human) bed and the sofa. Charlie learned what it is to love and be loved by people, and the love between Charlie and I was so powerful that it was almost tangible. 

4) Would you do this again?

This is a hard question to answer, Marc, and I can’t say a definite yes or no. I had no knowledge of Charlie’s background when he first arrived, and it was only when I contacted his rescuer in Romania that this information emerged. My elderly lurcher, Skye, who was Charlie’s close friend and mentor, is very sick and frail now, so will have the quiet retirement that he deserves. I’ve made a promise to Skye that he will have all of my love, care and attention through his twilight time. 

But later…possibly. I frequently get asked to foster other feral and street dogs, as I have friends who run rescues in Europe and Eastern Europe as well as the UK, but Skye has to be my priority for now. However, over 10,000 dogs are euthanized each year in our pounds here in the UK (and so many more in the USA). That’s terribly sad, because they would find life in a home a blessing rather than a struggle. This is something I think about a great deal, especially with so many dogs being imported over here who find it very hard (and sometimes impossible) to adapt.

5) What are your major messages to others who are thinking about adopting a feral dog or who have done so?

I would say that if you are considering adopting a feral dog, think carefully. Look at what’s likely to be involved. Ask yourself whether you’re willing to be 100% committed to helping that dog adjust to a massive culture shock. 

Are you willing to make significant changes to your lifestyle, such as staying home most of the time, monitoring your own actions, reactions and any visitors, and managing challenging situations? Do you have experience of dogs with fear or aggression issues? This is important, because the domestic environment is a scary place for a feral dog. Are you willing to allow the dog to learn at his own pace, however slow this may be? 

One friend who is fostering a very fearful street dog had the patience and wisdom to let the dog hide away in her open crate for six months without attempting to coerce her into interacting. It takes patience and understanding to do that, and almost two years later the dog is now coping well even outside the home, because she was given time. Not everyone is willing or able to do this. If you want a challenge, and the rewards this ultimately brings, then that’s wonderful!

As a caution, though: I receive a lot of phone calls and emails from people who are struggling alongside the unsocialised dogs they have adopted; people who took in their dogs because they were touched by their sad stories on social networking sites. They’re desperate for help, because once the dogs were imported no rescue backup was available. I find this very sad. Even when rescue backup is available, not all rescues have a great deal of understanding of dog behaviour – this is something that Dale McLelland and I are currently addressing through our program, “The Dog’s BFF Award.”

Rescues here are often asked to take dogs such as these in because the adopters were unaware of the level of commitment and responsibility that is required, and feel their only choice is to relinquish their dogs; a heartbreaking situation for all, and it’s hard for rescues to find appropriate new homes. Other adopters I’ve spoken with have had to accept, after a period of time, that their dogs will most likely never want to interact, and that they will always have to control and manage the environment and keep family members and visitors safe. 

If you have adopted a feral dog, I would say thank you for caring and for your dedication and commitment. If you need help or support, please don’t accept advice from just anyone, even if they have lived with many dogs. Seek out a “positive,” force-free behaviourist with knowledge of unsocialized dogs to help you negotiate any challenges. Avoid putting pressure on your dog to interact with you and others – wait for your dog to choose to approach you. Give your dog time and space, build trust through being kind and gentle. Move slowly, speak softly, and avoid placing your dog under additional stress while he or she settles in. 

Learn how to read your dog’s body language so that you can tell when he or she is anxious, fearful, or is feeling that attack may be the only form of defence from unwanted attention or unfamiliar stimuli. Understanding canine communication is something that all dog guardians should learn as a basic requirement. 

Love unconditionally and look at every single situation from your dog’s perspective. Ask “How is this for you?” constantly. Appreciate and (quietly) celebrate every step of progress, and try not to be upset by regressions. Be willing to go right back to the beginning if your dog does go through a sticky patch, and keep on building that trust. The relationship that can develop from this is truly remarkable, and a privilege.

6) Is there anything else you would like to say to readers?

Animal welfare is paramount, regardless of species. With any dog, and particularly with a feral dog or street dog whose life has been very different to that of our home-bred dogs, it’s important to use the yardstick of the Five Freedoms, the basic tenets for welfare. These are: (1) Freedom from hunger or thirst, (2) Freedom from discomfort, (3) Freedom from pain, injury or disease, (4) Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour and (5) Freedom from fear and distress. 

It isn’t always easy to uphold the Five Freedoms when you live with a feral dog. With Charlie, and with other free-ranging dogs I have met, fear is a major issue. To live under constant stress is contrary to welfare. Another issue is (4) the freedom to express most normal behaviours. Many free-ranging dogs have to be kept on-leash when out because they would otherwise bolt for freedom, and that is a tough call, too. I was fortunate in that friends have a secure field nearby, where Charlie could run and play freely, and if you have a free-ranging dog it’s in your dog’s best interest to find out whether anyone local rents out a secure paddock or field by the hour so that your dog can express his natural desire and need to roam around without being tethered to you.

I feel that our definition of “rescue” needs to be examined. Rescue implies a better, happier life for the dog, and not all feral dogs are better off in a domestic environment. Because of this, through the Dog Welfare Alliance I support spay and neuter programs in the areas where there are many free-ranging dogs. These help to reduce the future population, helps to avoid the vast numbers of puppies born to suffer and lead short lives, and allows better quality of life for the dogs taken in by the organizations such as Animal Spay Neuter International. The dogs who are socialized with people are put into the rescue system, while those who could not cope with domestic life are neutered and released. 

I’m glad that Charlie was sent to me. He was a tremendous gift in my life, I loved him beyond measure (and he made it clear he loved me, too), and he became an advocate for rescue dogs. Many people followed the story of his progress (and regressions) on Facebook. He raised awareness of the plight of other dogs in need, dogs were adopted because of his story, and his passing was deeply mourned across the world by people who had never met him. Charlie will live on in a great many hearts, and I hope that his story helps others who live with dogs who have fear issues.

I hope this outstanding book will receive the wide and global audience it deserves. It is that good. There are many lessons to be learned by choosing to live with a "difficult dog," for whom a human or humans become their oxygen and their will to live. Thank you Lisa for sharing both your and Charlie's stories. I surely will share my copies of Charlie with many people.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and CoexistenceThe Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (; @MarcBekoff)